Dow Shingles Heat Up Solar Competition

MIDLAND, Mich. ( TheStreet) -- A recent announcement from Dow Chemical ( DOW) is a major development in the renewable energy sector. It also provides competition for First Solar ( FSLR).

In a press release, Dow detailed the rollout of a new roofing product that incorporates solar cells in roofing shingles.

Dow says conventional roofing contractors will be able to intermix the shingles with conventional asphalt shingles and install both types simultaneously.

The shingles will have an impact on the Zero Energy House, a project spearheaded by General Electric ( GE) that I wrote about in July.

Dow refers to these shingles as Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) building materials. They use high-efficiency (Dow's words), CIGS-based, thin film photovoltaic cells manufactured on a flexible substrate. The structure is laminated into the final shingle using conventional polymer processing methods. CIGS refers to a material composed of copper, indium and gallium selenide. The term selenide refers to selenium, which is forming intermetallic compounds with the other three metals.

Dow has not revealed the source for its CIGS photovoltaic cells. They could be producing a material that they have developed and will manufacture themselves. They might also be sourcing them from a number of companies that have been developing products using CIGS.Among these companies are Nanosolar of San Jose, Calif.; Global Solar of Tucson, Ariz.; MiaSole of Santa Clara, Calif.; and HelioVolt of Austin, Texas. All are privately held. Only Global Solar claims to be in full-scale production of CIGS products, with manufacturing facilities in Tucson and Berlin, Germany.

More than a year ago, IBM ( IBM) announced a joint venture with privately held Tokyo Ohka Kogyo to develop CIGS technology that could be licensed to solar companies by 2010 or 2011. The stated objective was to produce solar cells with an electricity cost of less than $1 per watt at peak generation. This is a long-sought goal for solar technology. This cost goal would involve reaching 15% efficiency for photovoltaic cell operations. CIGS cells on the market today are in the area of 10% efficient. HelioVolt has announced a process that produces 12.2%-efficient cells using a new process, and Global Solar has said it expects to ultimately reach 14% efficiency. These efficiency goals are theoretically possible. In 2008 the U.S. National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory achieved an efficiency of 19.9% using the same general process technology that most commercial concerns are using (called co-evaporation).

The CIGS technology efforts are competing with the thin-film efforts of First Solar ( FSLR), the generally acknowledged leader in thin-film solar technology. First Solar technology uses cadmium teluride materials deposited on rigid glass substrates. The company announced earlier this year that it had moved under the $1-per-watt manufacturing cost target for its product. Besides the obvious difference in PV materials, Dow is dealing with a flexible substrate and First Solar uses rigid glass.

-- Written by John Lounsbury in Clayton, N.C.

At the time of publication, the author, clients and family members owned ETFs invested in alternative energy companies.

John B. Lounsbury is a financial planner and investment adviser, providing comprehensive financial planning and investment advisory services to a select group of families on a fee-only basis. He worked for 34 years with IBM, and spent 25 years in R&D management and corporate staff positions. He also was a Series 6, 7, 63 licensed representative with a major insurance company brokerage for nine years.

Specific interests include political and economic history and investment strategy analysis. He holds degrees from the University of Vermont, Columbia University and the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he studied chemistry, physics and mathematics. He is a contributor to Seeking Alpha and his own blog, PiedmontHudson.

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